‘Judiciary grossly underfunded, needs reforms’
The credibility of any virile judicial system is hinged on sustained confidence of the citizens. So how has the sector fared in the last 56 years? Chief Akinlolu Kehinde (SAN) who said the sector is dogged by underfunding, condemned at what he described as efforts targeted at pulling down the judiciary and warned that attempts to desecrate the judicial alter will affect everybody.
He said: “If you look at the scripture, it says that as a judge, you are going to decide between two people. So, you should do it with fairness and equal opportunity. But where you have a society where there is a regular and conscious effort to pull down that system, there is no way you can get the right result.
“Unfortunately, that is the state of affairs in Nigeria today. Once a judge exercises his or her discretion, the other person who is aggrieved or the losing party will go to town and start calling the judge all manner of names. They forget that if they discrete that alter, it will affect everybody. I am not holding forth for the judiciary but what I am trying to say in essence is that there are some institutions that are so sacred for the stability of our polity, for the stability of our democracy and for the stability of our country.
“When you are looking for foreign investors and every day, you are on air, both within and outside the country, telling people that you have no confidence in your judiciary and that your judiciary is corrupt, that your judiciary is incompetent, how then do you want people to bring their money into that system?.
“We should also not forget that this is the same judiciary that is well rated in other parts of the world. Up till tomorrow, the cream of The Gambian judiciary is manned by Nigerians. So, we must have a rethink, we must have a re-orientation that where there is a dispute between two people, one must win and the other person must lose.
“The beautiful thing with our system is that if you are the looser, you have another opportunity to ventilate your disagreement with that judgement.”
Irrespective of the accusations, Kehinde admonished judges to remain on the path of integrity. His words: “I will also encourage our men and women on the Bench who are of highest integrity, to keep doing their best knowing full well that whether the society appreciates them or not, there is a force – the God almighty who will reward every man according to his work.
“And if there is any one of them, just as I appeal to the members of both the outer and the inner Bar, who is not doing what he ought to do, the person should do self examination and tow the line of honour because we have no other country. If we tear and destroy the country, we have nowhere to run to and the generations coming behind us will have no place they can call their country. Even if you hold 10 American Passports, your skin will give you out. That society is not meant for you.”
On the likely reforms he expects to see in the country’s judiciary, Kehinde decried the poor state of funding and urged that the system be adequately funded for effective dispensation of justice.
He said: “The judiciary is grossly under funded. Basic requirements of what they need to effectively perform their duties are not made available and they cannot talk. They have courts where ordinary toner for the printer is not made available. It is just that I cannot name names. So, how do they operate? The judge will write in long hands, you put him under pressure that his judgement must be released within a number of days, yet, there is no toner in the printer, the staff are ill motivated, there is no diesel to power the generator because of the epileptic power supply, and you still want the man to perform? What sort of magic do you want him to perform? So, that sector is grossly under funded. There is need to be serious about funding the judiciary if we want the judiciary we can be proud of.”
The learned silk also urged respect for the system, stressing that the judiciary is not the appendage of the executive or any arm of government. “It is an independent arm of government just as the executive and the legislature and whatever is due to the judiciary at any level must be given to it without expecting them to bend their knees before they get what is due to them. That is what is happening in this country at this moment. Then of course, there must be capacity building for the judges and their supporting staffs,” he said.
To reduce work load on the Judges, Kehinde charged his colleagues to critically review a case before filling it in court. He noted that some counsel are mischievous to the extent that even when they know a matter will not see the light of day, they still fill same in court.
His words: “There is no judge, at least, in the Federal Capital Territory High Court and may be, the Federal High Court, that has less than 300 cases on his docket. So, when you have 300 cases on your docket, it means that you are dealing with a minimum of 600 lawyers because the plaintiff must have a lawyer and the defendant must have a lawyer. That is when there is one plaintiff and one defendant. There are cases where you have 10 defendants and each of them will come with his or her own counsel. So, how do they cope with this scenario?
“I will also say that we must challenge our colleagues. We have a right to ventilate our clients’ position but there are some ventilations we do in court as counsel that are grossly mischievous. You know that by every parameter, this case will not see the light of day but because the law says that every application, no matter how stupid it is, the court must hear it and give a ruling one way or the other, so, in order to frustrate the other party or over work the system, you still bring the applications.”
Still on reforms that would aid de-congestion of court cases, he suggested the use of alternative dispute resolution. He said: “I will also suggest, especially for commercial practice, that we make use of alternative dispute resolution. We have these things well laid out in our constitution – arbitration, mediation and reconcilation. We should make use of it. Then, for the appellate courts, we must get to a point where we would be able to sift the cases that go on appeal. It is not every matter that should be allowed to get to the dockets of the court of appeal or the Supreme Court.
“If an issue of law has been settled and established and you have any matter in that regard, there must be an arrangement in place within the system where, at the point of filling, you will be told that the matter cannot go on appeal because the issue you want to canvass has long been settled and you are duty bound to follow that settled position of the law. That is what happens in countries like Ethiopia because I have had course to interface with the judiciary in Ethiopia. With this in place, you will find a situation where a matter is filed and within one year, it is disposed off. That way, our investors, the users of the various court systems would have confidence. There is no point filling a matter and you will never have an idea when you will get to the end of it.”
The SAN also canvassed the need to separate the office of the Minister of Justice from that of the Attorney General of the Federation. He stated that he has always maintained that the office of the Attorney General should not have any political attachment, because according to him, as the Attorney General, he is the Chief law officer of the state or of the Federation as the case may be and his first commitment must be to the sustenance of the rule of law.
He noted that the minister can be a political appointee and subject to the whims and caprices of the employer who is the executive governor or the President. “But if the two offices are separated and you have an Attorney General that get to that office by way of career development, or there is a constitutional provision of how an Attorney General should be appointed and people compete or bid for it, they are interviewed and the best person emerges, who understands the duty of that office as one whose primary obligation is to see to due complainant to the rule of law irrespective of whose ox is gorged, if we have that kind of situation in our system, I think it will be better for us. We have had instances where an Attorney General or Commissioner for Justice, once you do not tow the line of your boss, you are regarded as being insubordinate or disloyal. But the loyalty of the Attorney General should be to the rule of law and not any individual. The Minister or Commissioner for Justice can be appointed just like any other but the office of the Attorney General is the key.
“We should not forget that, that is the only office that is constitutionally provided for. You can afford not to have ministers for other ministries but the office of the Attorney General is a Constitutional provision. This goes to show the importance of that office. As I said earlier, the loyalty of that person must be to the rule of law.”
Asked whether he considered it necessary for the government to appoint additional judges as a way of reducing work load on courts, Kehinde stated that more Judges can be appointed, but showed more concern about the process of appointment. He said: “Thankfully, there has been a tremendous improvement in the process of appointment and I want to doff my hat for the outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria and his predecessors, who in their wisdom, listened to the opinions of stakeholders in the system that there was need for a more rigorous, a more transparent mode of appointment. Right now, I can say with every confidence that the crop of Judges who are coming up are people who are knowledgeable enough and are interested in doing the job.
“I will say that we must change our attitude. Yes, I agree that the population is growing, people are becoming more sophisticated and people are becoming more conscious of their rights and would want to taste everything in court, yet, there must be checks and balances. We must make use of alternative dispute resolution mechanism. We must also have a way, even at the High court level, of determining which case will eventually go into a full trial.